07.06.2018

The Most Revealing Non-Verbal Cue

By Marcia Reynolds
Marcia Reynolds

People don’t always tell the truth.

Often, they aren’t intentionally lying or withholding information. They don’t know how to articulate what they are feeling or how to clearly define their point of view.

Research shows we aren’t very self-aware of our non-verbal cues.

Or, they might be uncomfortable sharing a strong opinion or disclosing an embarrassing thought or action. Yet these revelations can be the key to resolving the problems they face. The most revealing non-verbal cue is a shift in emotional expression.

Why you want them to “see” their shifts

When coaching people through problems or indecision, using reflective statements can be more powerful than just asking them questions. When I summarize what people tell me and ask if this best describes what is going on, or I list the different problems they told me they want to address and ask which one is most important, they stop and think about their thinking. When I notice and share a shift in their emotions, they stop and think about their feelings, which helps them clarify what beliefs, conflicts or fears might be blocking them from seeing what they need to do.

Reflecting techniques go beyond hearing their words. When you are fully present and not thinking about what they are saying, you can receive what they offer when they shift their gestures, vocal variation, posture, and emotional energy. Reflecting these shifts can be both enlightening and transformational.

For example, you might notice when they

  • Look down or away as they change their tone of voice
  • Hesitate or become silent
  • Get louder or more animated
  • Change the subject or go back in time to explain themselves
  • Stress the words “always” or “never” when describing other people’s intentions or behavior.
  • Use the word “really” accompanied by a heightened tone that accentuates a declaration, such as “what I really want” or “what I really can’t stand.”

You can also develop your sensory awareness to better pick up what emotions they are feeling. Empathy is not an emotion. You experience empathy—when you recognize, understand, and appreciate how someone is feeling—when your mind and heart is open. You open your mind with curiosity and your heart with warm regard. You can then sense what they are feeling, accepting large and small bursts without trying to fix or quell their expressions.

How to reflect non-verbal emotional shifts

Reflecting means you become the mirror where the person can witness their non-verbal expressions. This can be jarring. It can also be the best way to get them to think about what they are thinking, what they are feeling, what they are believing and assuming, what is getting in their way, what they can reasonably expect to happen, and what they are willing to do now that they better understand their situation.

Here are some tips to help you be a clear mirror:

Summarize what was expressed as well as said

Start your sentences with “I noticed…” “I heard…” or “I sense…” Then ask if you got it right. Be prepared to be wrong. If you are wrong, they will correct you, which leads them to think more deeply about their thoughts and feelings.

Be curious about their reactions

If you aren’t sure what the non-verbal shift means, ask. Ron Carucci suggests in an HBR article to share your observation and then invite the person to tell you what is happening internally. Carucci suggests using statements like, “Tell me how I should interpret your silence” and “It seems that what I just said made you think about something else. Would you share that with me?”1

Question beliefs and assumption

Once we agree on what outcome the person wants to have by the end of our coaching, I often ask about the apparent beliefs and assumptions behind the person’s words. When the person tells you what they think is motivating other’s behavior, ask what made them believe this is true and if anything else could be driving the behavior. I often ask if the offending behavior is directed to them or if the person acts that way with everyone. This helps the person consider if they are taking someone’s actions too personally. Helping the person reflect on their beliefs and assumptions often triggers emotional shifts. Stay curious about what they are now seeing, learning, and becoming aware of based on the reflection.

Recognize conflicts

People are often stuck when what they want conflicts with what they should or are expected to do. They will show increasing confusion, frustration, or anxiety and use the word “but” when you point out the apparent conflict, especially if their emotions demonstrate a preference. Don’t push them to choose. Help them to see that there might be many more options than just choosing one over the other.

Check your own discomfort, fear, or judgment

Reflection works best when you appreciate their experience no matter what they say and express. You need to hold a safe space for them to trust you enough to express themselves freely. If you notice your own discomfort with their emotions, breathe and relax so you can stay present and open. If your body tightens up with judgment or fear due to your own biases, take another breath and slowly exhale while you clear your mind, reminding your heart to warmly regard the person in front of you who is trusting you to help them solve a dilemma.

Learn more about how to apply reflective techniques to your coaching and leadership conversations in my free webinar, How to Coach the Person, not the Problem, to Create Breakthroughs during the WBECS Pre-Summit.


1 Ron Carucci, Ways to Get Honest, Critical Feedback from Your Employees, HBR.org, Nov. 23, 2017